Disability in the 19th century

This section describes the rapid expansion of new institutions in the 19th century when many people with disabilities were moved from their communities into asylums and workhouses.

The Metropolitan Asylums Board Victoria Embankment, London. Interior, circa 1903.

The Metropolitan Asylums Board Victoria Embankment, London. Interior, circa 1903.
© English Heritage Archive

The Growth of Asylums

The 19th Century is the time when buildings designed for disabled people 'boomed'. The industrial revolution had a dramatic impact on the English landscape. Towns, factories, railways and mills quickly replaced the ancient fields and villages. Outside many towns and cities, the high walls and chimneys of a new county pauper lunatic asylum began to dominate the view.

Colney Hatch Asylum, aerial view, 1926.

Colney Hatch Asylum, aerial view, 1926.
© Britain from Above collection, English Heritage Archive

'From any of the great main lines of railway which run through the shire' proclaimed The Builder magazine in 1892, 'a traveller will be sure to spy, in some comparatively secluded position, a great group of buildings, which by their modern air …their tall chimney stacks and … their bulky water tower, seem to belong rather to the busy towns than to country seclusion.'  This was the asylum.

The asylum was something distant to marvel at, but not somewhere many 19th century people would ever want to live.

New Workhouses

Following the 1834 Poor Law Act, 350 grim new workhouses were built, one within roughly every 20 miles. Earlier workhouses had housed the destitute disabled of the local parish, and their buildings were of a more humane design.

The new workhouses were designed to root out 'shirkers and scroungers'. They were intended as miserable places to live, with Spartan conditions and harsh work regimes. The able-bodied poor avoided them if they could, so disabled and mentally ill people were moved into them.

Interior view from south east showing drying cabinets in laundry, Union Workhouse, Litcham Road, Gressenhall, Norfolk.

Interior view from south east showing drying cabinets in laundry, Union Workhouse, Litcham Road, Gressenhall, Norfolk.
© English Heritage

Attitudes Hardened

At the beginning of the 19th century, a few hundred people were living in nine small charitable asylums. By 1900, more than 100,000 'idiots and lunatics' were in 120 county pauper asylums. A further 10,000 were in workhouses.

This happened largely because society now thought that giving financial relief to people in their own homes would encourage laziness. The truly destitute would be helped, but only in the workhouse, where no one would want to stay for long. Society did not understand the impact this would have on disabled and mentally ill people.

Alienists and Asylums

There was a new class of medical professional, the 'alienist' (later known as a 'psychiatrist'). At first, alienists believed asylums were peaceful places where patients could be restored by 'moral treatment'. But by the end of the century, they had lost their 'therapeutic optimism' and believed that most patients were 'incurable'. The asylums contained 'chronic' and dangerous cases, and most of the inmates never left.

Fawcett Memorial, Vauxhall Park, Vauxhall, Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) was a blind academic, statesman and postmaster-general who campaigned for public open spaces. The statue shown here was demolished in the early 1960s. The card is postmarked September 1907.

Fawcett Memorial, Vauxhall Park, Vauxhall, Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) was a blind academic, statesman and postmaster-general who campaigned for public open spaces. The statue shown here was demolished in the early 1960s. The card is postmarked September 1907.
© English Heritage

Life as a Disabled Person in Victorian England

Despite the expansion of institutions, people with disabilities still lived in their communities. Special schools and many charitable organisations for disabled people were established.

Though some people begged on the streets, others prospered. The blind Henry Fawcett (1833-1884) became Postmaster General in 1880. Young disabled people formed a self-help group called the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. Their coat of arms was a sword crossed with a crutch.

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